Before 1871, the area of Europe we call Germany had been made up of  many separate Germanic states. These states shared a common history,  culture and language but had never been united as a single nation.  Prussia was the largest and strongest of the German states and in  1870-1871, it defeated France in a short war. Victory over France  marked Prussia as a major European power and the German states  united behind Prussia to form the German Empire. The formation of the  German Empire created a new super-state which stood to dominate  both Eastern and Western Europe. The Empire covered a vast area, had  fertile farming land, rich natural resources and the largest population in  Western Europe. Prussian power ensured that the German Empire was  also possessed of a very formidable military.


As Prussia was the driving force behind the unification of the German  states, its leaders dominated the Empire. The King of Prussia, Wilhelm I,  became the Kaiser (‘Emperor’) of Germany while the Prussian Prime  Minister, Otto von Bismarck, became the Chancellor of Germany.

Bismarck created the Constitution of the German Empire which at face-  value did include a degree of democracy. The title of Kaiser was  hereditary and was to be passed down through the Prussian House of  Hohenzollern. The Kaiser would appoint his Chancellor, but the Empire  was to have an elected Reichstag. Only the Kaiser could write laws but  the Reichstag had the right to approve, amend or reject these laws. In  practice, democracy in the Empire was very limited as the Kaiser and  the Prussian aristocracy ensured that they retained ultimate political  power.


Wilhelm II became the third Kaiser of Germany in 1888. In 1890, he  entered into a quarrel with Bismarck which resulted in him dismissing  ‘The Iron Chancellor’. Wilhelm’s treatment of Bismarck was typical of the  manner in which he ruled Germany, consistently rejecting the counsel of  his advisers and the Reichstag, preferring to rule in the manner of an  absolute monarch.

Wilhelm II was an enthusiastic supporter of German militarism and in  the 1890s he supported a massive build-up of the German military,  especially its navy. At the same time that Germany increased its military  power, Wilhelm pursued aggressive foreign policy toward Britain, France  and Russia whilst affirming Germany’s alliance with Austro-Hungary and  Italy. Alarmed by Germany’s aggression, Britain, France and Russia  formed their own reciprocal alliances. In 1914, tensions between the  two power blocs erupted into war.